Still Wakes the Deep - Narrative Horror on the Sea

That's quite a rig you have there

Still Wakes the Deep - Narrative Horror on the Sea
Source: Press Kit.

In many ways, Still Wakes the Deep, the horror-laden new release from developer The Chinese Room, is the antithesis of the studio’s previous “walking simulator” games, Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Whereas those games take place in wide-open villages in the Scottish and English countryside, Still Wakes the Deep puts you in the claustrophobic confines of an oil rig in the perpetually angry North Sea.

The earlier games had you exploring and investigating uninhabited spaces, piecing together mysteries of the past from audio and visual clues and texts, while the events of the new game are happening to you in real time as you endeavor to survive. Most importantly, this new effort is far more interactive and action-oriented than its forbearers. While that action is still limited compared to many games, it draws you into the experience more than the simple walking and mouse-clicking experienced in said earlier games. All these differences combine to make Still Wakes the Deep the best game yet from the Brighton-based developer.

Source: Press Kit.

Trouble on the Sea

For those unfamiliar with the term, “walking simulator” is an unofficial genre, sometimes uttered derisively by those who prefer more action in their games, to indicate a narrative-driven experience with relatively limited mechanics and interactivity. These games have a story to tell and they want you to experience it on their terms. Listening to audio and reading text exposition, hunting for clues, and walking are usually the genre's core mechanics. This is all very much true of Still Wakes the Deep, though the extra interactivity of opening doors, throwing switches, hiding and the like also give it connective tissue with games such as Outlast and the studio’s previous foray into horror, Amnesia: Machine for Pigs.

That said, the game sticks mostly to its roots, keeping the story as the main focus. You are Caz McLeary, a Scottish lad who has apparently done something bad, knocking about another resident of the island to where he fears the police are right on his heels. Caz has skipped off to an oil rig in the North Sea, hoping things will calm down back on land in his absence. Your first hints at the narrative come from a letter written by Caz’s wife, and throughout the game you’ll get more context and learn a bit more about the couple’s relationship through flashbacks and audio clues. This setup puts Caz on the oil rig and, not surprisingly, things get right into the muck from there.

Without getting spoilery, something goes wrong during operations on the rig, and you’ll find yourself battling against the elements and some horrifying entities, trying to save the lives of the crew and get off the rig to return to your family. The studio hasn’t lost its usual touch with spot-on dialogue and the inner thoughts of its protagonists, while a fantastic cast of voice actors brings the script to life and makes you care about the characters, even though you spend fairly little time with them. Subtitles are almost a necessity here as many of the characters perform in a fantastic, thick brogue, and the difference between the text on the screen and the heavy Gaelic delivery brought a smile to my face throughout the game.

While I wished I could have spent a bit more time with each of them at the beginning to lend more weight to their ultimate fates, those who make it to the end of the game with you feel like they've been respected due to the strength of their performances. The story lulls just a bit in the middle, but by the end, you’ll be quite glad you hung around.

Source: Press Kit.

The real star here is the oil rig itself, an environment that feels massive when you’re on the deck and yet incredibly claustrophobic in most of its interior spaces. That’s all before the inciting event that turns the rig into a hellscape of fire, leaking oil, saltwater, and hallways that threaten to crush you as the outside pushes in on all sides. The rig is a warren of hallways and ladders, small rooms and hulking mechanical contraptions. Throughout the game’s six-hour runtime, you are pushed forward in a linear fashion, but there are intermittent opportunities to delve into your crewmates' rooms and other common areas on the rig. These moments provide environmental storytelling and an idea of the immense scale you are dealing with.

These visuals combine with incredible audio design to really make you feel you’re in a place that most of us will never experience in person. The creaking and groaning of the rig’s metal structure, the rain pelting madly against the windows, and the continuous gale of the North Sea’s fury fully immerse you in the environment and set the stage for the horrors to come throughout the game. The howls, screams, and verbalizations of the enemies can be truly spine-tingling, particularly in the sections where you need to hide for your own survival.

Run, Don’t Walk

As with most games in the genre, the actual gameplay is likely to be the most divisive element of Still Wakes the Deep. Though it provides more interactivity than most of its brethren, the action is still largely holding down Shift (or a trigger) to sprint, along with variations on the classic Quicktime Event style of hitting or holding a button at the moment its prompt pops up on the screen. That legacy notwithstanding, there are plenty of tense moments to be had when Caz jumps across a chasm of formerly intact metal walkways or holds on for dear life when the rig tilts crazily or sways from a massive explosion. As long as players don’t expect an FPS or action-adventure, I'd bet most of them will not be disappointed with what is being offered. There’s even a section near the end of the game that delivers the best height-related moments since the sky bridges in The Last of Us Part 2.

Source: Press Kit.

Besides running and jumping, you’ll also be opening vent grates to access rooms, climbing up and down the legs of the rig, extinguishing fires, maintaining your grip with double clutching, and more. One inclusion that I particularly liked was the “look back” button, which is guaranteed to stand your neck hairs on end when something is chasing you through the halls of the rig in true horror movie fashion.

As a fan of water-based levels in games, I quite enjoyed the swimming sections, which felt even more high-stakes than the rest, what with the lowered visibility and threat of drowning, having to fight the rush of water into the rig as you sought to escape. The gameplay and narrative hit an extra stride in the last third of the game's 6-ish hours, so be sure to stick around to the end.

Ultimately, the game lives or dies on its narrative, and for me, it succeeded in eliciting a range of emotions. Caz begins as a sort of anti-hero, his own actions and desire to run from the problem placing him on the rig, but as a husband and father, I couldn't help but connect with his love for his family and loyalty to those around him. The horror themes and action did a superb job pushing the story along, and the payoff at the end was well-earned and heartbreaking at the same time. If you're a fan of walking simulators or horror-narrative games, you'll definitely want to give this one a chance.

Still Wakes the Deep is available on Steam, PS5 and Xbox Series consoles


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